In retrospect, maybe the best time to announce you’re riding a controversial loophole through another country’s immigration rules is after you’ve got off the plane, not before you get on it.
The world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic, dropped the news of his medical exemption to Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination policy on social media from an airport tarmac. The photo showed Mr. Djokovic leaned up against a luggage trolley. Planes taxied in the background.
That crucial error gave Australia a full day to work itself into a proper froth. By the time he landed on Wednesday evening, the country was in uproar.
Then it turned out that someone in Mr. Djokovic’s camp had ticked the wrong box on his visa application.
Mr. Djokovic was detained overnight at Melbourne-Tullamarine Airport. By mid-morning, Melbourne time, his visa had been denied.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to social media himself, fairly crowing: “Rules are rules. No one is above these rules.”
Serbia’s President had also entered the fray, promising “justice and truth.” Mr. Djokovic’s father had already urged street demonstrations to protest his son’s “captivity.”
As international incidents go, it isn’t U.S. pilot Gary Powers in a U2 spy plane getting shot down over Russia. But based on the gleeful reactions of the Australian news correspondents doing live hits from the airport, it’s close.
By early afternoon, local time, Mr. Djokovic had been moved to a quarantine hotel where he was waiting to be put on a flight home. As he waited, the Australian PM called the (as-yet unrevealed) basis for Mr. Djokovic’s vaccine exemption “insufficient.”
The lesson here is twofold. First, really read those visa applications. People hire lawyers to fill them out for a reason.
Second, that the old star system has been chaotically altered by the pandemic.
Mr. Djokovic has spent the past two years locked in phony war with the tennis authorities. Phony because that was a war he was always going to win.
Everyone assumed he was against vaccination (because he’d said that several times). Everyone knew that eventually he’d be called on it. And because he is the best men’s player in the world, it was equally assumed he’d probably find a way to get away with it.
When Mr. Djokovic announced his exemption, the reaction from his peers was bemusement.
“I just think it’s very interesting,” world No. 34 Alex de Minaur said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
“I think if it was me, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” journeyman Jamie Murray said.
Both sounded more resigned than affronted. They understand how the star system works. At different times and to differing levels, they have also benefited from it.
For athletes at their level, the usual rules don’t always apply. But for the very few at Mr. Djokovic’s, you can make up your own rules.
It can’t be said to a certainty that’s what happened in this instance. But when one of the sports world’s most outspoken vaccine deniers, who just happens to be on the cusp of setting the career record for men’s Grand Slams, gets a secret hall pass from a star chamber of anonymous doctors, it sure looks that way to the average guy.
Clearly, no one at the Australian Open thought that would be a big problem. Just as clearly, no one at the Australian Open reads the news.
All the inchoate anger that has been circulating the world for the past two years needs targets. The Australian Open had just given the populace a nice, big, fat one.
That target isn’t Mr. Djokovic himself. Not exactly. That’s not how this sort of outrage works any more. The focus of public fury is the system that panders to people such as him. We always knew there was one rule for us and another rule for people on TV. But having spent the past couple of years having it rubbed in their faces, people are less sanguine about it.
While his plane was cruising at altitude, Mr. Djokovic’s exemption began to symbolize every politician who scolds the public to stay home and then vacations abroad.
His announcement message was a surrogate for every Instagram post from every insufferable celebrity cavorting on a yacht in St. Barts while the world goes pear-shaped again.
By the time Mr. Djokovic landed, the Australian political class had mobilized against him. If it hadn’t been the convenient excuse of his paperwork, some other pretext would have been found to keep him out.
This is where Mr. Djokovic erred. He thought he was fighting with the suits who run tennis. In that matchup, he wins every time. It’s not the money. It’s the social status that comes with being in his orbit, even at a distance.
If you spend any time around sports, you quickly realize the most star-struck fans aren’t kids in hockey jerseys at the tunnel mouth. They’re the Bay Street movers and midtier celebrities who mingle with players behind the scenes.
Unlike the average joe in the stands, those people think they are in with a real shot at being buddies with this or that all-star. The lure of social cachet is more intoxicating than mere wealth. Many times, I’ve watched people who I’m sure think they are a great big deal making fools of themselves in pursuit of it.
That’s why top pros don’t have to push. Other people are already bending by the time they arrive.
But by putting his triumphal announcement on blast before he took off, Mr. Djokovic picked a fight with a far less amenable group – the public.
Those people aren’t his friends and don’t expect to be. They may admire his talent but don’t feel the need to give him something they wouldn’t get themselves. They have been pushed around for two years and don’t feel like giving more ground.
They don’t win many. But they won this one, for now.
The next time Mr. Djokovic feels like slipping around the rules – and there will be more next times as long as he is this good at tennis – he’ll want to do it a little more humbly, and a lot more quietly.